Scripture Readings: Mark 6:14-29, Mark 6:30-44, Psalm 24
Picture the loveliest banquet you ever attended. What did the space look and feel like? Was it indoors or outdoors? What kind of food was served? Was there music, and did you dance? Who were the guests, and how did you feel to be among them?
Well, the summer “wedding season” is upon us, and it seems that the best parties I’ve attended have been weddings. I recall elegant decorations in a comfortable space; music which captured such a joyous mood that people who usually refused to dance got up and boogied with gusto. And of course, there was great food! That’s always a priority for me! The quality of food says volumes about the host’s care. But above all, there was an openhearted feeling, welcoming the guests to enter an unhurried appreciation of the celebration. New relationships were born, a new community took shape, and strangers became friends. These parties seemed effortless, yet each required meticulous planning and energetic orchestration. Ultimately they came together so well because of the extraordinary thoughtfulness of the hosts for their guests.
But what happens when a host is not quite as thoughtful? Have you ever been to a banquet that took a disastrous turn? Maybe the host neglected to consider some minor detail, and it turned out to be major. Or maybe it wasn’t just an accidental neglect but a deeper denial of certain issues with dramatic consequences. Unfortunately, sometimes the culminating effect of banquets is that we become painfully aware of all sorts of dysfunctional dynamics,things we’d been hoping would just go away. All our inner conflicts and irreconcilable differences get brought to the table along with the fancy clothes and gifts. The result is hostility, not hospitality.
Herod’s birthday banquet must have initially seemed a lovely party. In the palace’s sumptuous banquet hall, no expense was spared for his A-list guests. The wine flowed freely. There was music and dancing. A young girl performed exquisitely for the guests. And then things went terribly wrong.
Now, Mark names this young girl Herodias, and says she is Herod’s daughter. This is a bit confusing, as we’ve also just heard that the unlawful wife Herod stole from his brother, is also named Herodias. But I think the naming confusion points to the deeper, underlying muddle of the host’s inner conflicts and deeply dysfunctional relationships with others. When Herod thoughtlessly makes an inappropriate oath to the girlwhat appeared to be hospitality is unveiled as the hostility of an insecure ruler. Herod is willing to put to death a man he recognizes as righteous and holy to save face before his peers.
Listening to this story, we find ourselves trapped, party to a downward spiral of corruption that we feel powerless to interrupt. No matter how much we want to protest, the end result remains. A banquet in honor of a birth becomes an occasion of death. I don’t know about you, but listening to this story gives me the same feeling I get watching trashy talk shows or reality T.V., where the guests are set up to get into a massive brawl or cheat one another. I am ashamed of myself for watching yet somehow unable to change the channel.
Worse yet is the recognition I’ve had similar experiences without the safe distance of the T.V. screen. How often do we show up at parties which seemed to offer outstanding hospitality, but which soon turn into deadly feasts of hostility? What seemed to be loving relationships become soured by contempt and distrust. What seemed to be opportunities for career advancement make us party to greed or violence. We show up with our best intentions and great ambitions to make a positive impact in the world, but we become entangled in a web of hostilities we’d never suspected or tried to ignore.
And, eventually, we become wary of associating with people like John, people who seek to be righteous and holy. We become all too aware of the risk, that we, too, could find ourselves served up as the main course to appease malicious appetites. However we might long to live out our faith with courage, we also don’t want to be cut off from autonomy and control. So, all too often, we just give up trying. As one preacher put it, “[We] dis-member our faith in order to look good in front of our peers, or at least not risk standing out…we decapitate what we say we believe in when we compartmentalize it into a Sunday ritual that has little or nothing to do with the rest of our lives.” As we become cynical spectators at parties gone terribly wrong, we might not lose our heads, but eventually we find ourselves captive, paralyzed, and estranged from ourselves and others.
I think it’s interesting how the gospel-writer, Mark, places this awful story right next to another banquet story. We know it as the story of Jesus feeding the 5000. Of course, when this second story begins, it looks like there will not be a feast but a famine. We’re not in a lavish palace, but a deserted place. It’s supposed to be a restful retreat from the crowds for Jesus and the disciples, trying to snatch a quiet moment and a bite to eat. They’ve brought barely enough food for themselves. But when they arrive at their destination, they are faced with party-crashers in the thousands, who stay long beyond the tolerance of the disciples.
Amazingly, where it appears there will be nothing but hostility, there is the miracle of hospitality. With compassion, Jesus accepts and welcomes his unexpected guests. And when dinnertime arrives, Jesus does not send the crowd away, as the disciples have requested, to scrape up, some meager sustenance, every man for himself. Jesus just says, “You give them something to eat,” inviting the disciples to become more than disgruntled spectators, empowering them to become co-hosts of an extraordinary banquet.
They are overwhelmed by the magnitude of this task, but he gently suggests they first take stock.“How many loaves have you? Go and see.” Trusting that whatever they find among the people will be enough, Jesus has them seat the people in an orderly fashion. Then taking five loaves and two fish, what seems to be inadequate nourishment, Jesus lifts it to heaven, blesses it, breaks it, and gives it to be shared. And the gospel says, “All ate and were filled;” what’s more, the leftovers from the feast that fed five thousand could have fed five thousand more.
Now, why would Mark put this story here? I think he does it on purpose. He wants us to compare and contrast. Look at the hosts. Look at their banquets. First appearances can be deceiving, but, as Jesus tells us elsewhere, “You will know them by their fruits.” Yes, food is a priority! So where are people fed real, life-giving sustenance, and where do they receive death, served up cold on silver platters?
As ashamed and enthralled as we can be by the dances of death before us, it turns out that Herod’s banquet is not the only one in town. We might feel powerless, but we do have a choice. Are you sick to your stomach with hostility’s feast? Then, get up and leave! You do not have to sit through a banquet where true welcome, true nourishment, true hospitality are in short supply. Side-by-side with the hostility of our world, there is another possibility. There is a host who truly welcomes us, every single one of us, just as we are, a host whose gracious hospitality provides a banquet of life more abundant that we can imagine. Why stay at the two-bit tetrarch’s birthday bash when you have the opportunity to attend the Lord’s Supper?
Now, I already know the answer to the question I just asked. I know why some of us continue to hang around at banquets which will ultimately starve us. It’s not an easy choice, to stand up and walk away. When you are an A-list guest at Herod’s banquet, turning to Jesus might seem like a step down. From an identity of power and influence, you become just one of a vast group of hungry people in need when dusk comes in the wilderness. From an elite insider with diverse comforts and entertainment, you become a stranger, seated on the ground with awkward company, waiting to receive the miracle of nourishment.
It is not easy, but it turns out that when we open our hands and receive the food at Jesus’ banquet, we find not only our daily bread, but sustenance for eternal life, the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. And an astonishing thing happens, a transformation only our extraordinary host could orchestrate. New relationships are born, as strangers became friends, and a new community takes shape.
Then, as we continue putting ourselves in Jesus’ hands, he takes us as we are, lonely strangers with myriad hostilities, and he lifts us to heaven, blesses, breaks, and shares us so that we ourselves become a sacrament of grace. We become co-hosts at the banquet, disciples empowered to offer the hospitality of Jesus Christ.
This morning we have the opportunity to participate in the Lord’s Supper once again. We’ll share the meal which is the central act of worship in which we remember our broken Savior and our Risen Lord. Our Lord is first and foremost a host who welcomes all people to eat at his banquet of blessing. Friends, let this be the day you open your hands whether for the very first time or once again, releasing all the hostilities the world has offered you, that you might come to Christ’s tableand receive true nourishment once more. Let this be the day you are sent out as guests become hosts to nourish strangers in need of mercy, sharing the bread of heaven and the cup of salvation. Let this be the day.
In the name of the One in Three, the Three in One, God in Community,
Giving, Receiving, and Sharing with all,